My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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28 October 2013

The Shadow People

In keeping with my last post about scary stories, here's a piece of fiction I wrote for a Scholastic anthology. The inspiration for this came from a lonely evening on a London Tube. I like to think it's quite scary--but in a "what about me?" way. 

The Shadow People

When Yamini stepped out at Vilasgunj station, she was surprised to see that there was no one there. Even for a small town—well, perhaps because it was a small town—Vilasgunj had a surprisingly busy station. There was a magazine man and an oranges woman and usually Anant Ram, the old, wizened station master, who knew everybody. But   today it seemed abandoned and all Yamini could see where the twisting shadows from the trees. She was even more surprised that for the first time in her life, nobody had come to receive her. It was her first day back from boarding school, it was the holidays, and she had a trunk and couldn't be expected to carry it all the way home.

Well, at least she thought she had a trunk. Yamini watched in astonishment as the train pulled out of the station leaving absolutely nothing behind. “Hey!” she yelled, running after it, “hey! My trunk!” Nope. There was no indication of the train stopping or even anyone listening to her. This was a very bad day, and Yamini set her teeth, preparing to go home and complain to her mother. Then she would be fed mangoes, and she would play with the dogs and maybe in the evening, go swimming with her cousins. Nothing was so bad that it ruined the summer holidays. It was probably a mix up, she said to herself comfortingly. They probably expect me tomorrow, and how surprised they'll be to see me walk in and everyone will feel really bad for me. She smiled to herself at the thought of the adult’s aghast faces. She could milk this for a while.

The fact that ghosts come out at night is a myth, just like many other things in this world. They still retain some of their human traits and like to sleep like the rest of us. There are scary things that appear in the middle of the night—monsters and werewolves and things wanting revenge—but, God preserve us, not ghosts.

Maybe she could get a lift along the way, thought Yamini. Having lived her entire life in Vilasgunj at 'Chaudhury ka bungalow' people knew her and her family. She was confident that anyone seeing her trudging along in the heat would stop and offer to drop her home. The bungalow was about two kilometres away and her shoes hurt as the sun beat down on her hair. But the rest of the town was as empty as the station. Was it a festival day? Sometimes people retired to their houses on special occasions, spending time with their families till the evening when they made house calls and distributed sweets. Her family was quite involved with all town happenings, and if it was a festival day, then that would explain why they had forgotten to pick her up. Yamini tried not to get too frustrated with the heat and her shoes and her confusion. It would be better soon. She just wanted her mother.

Walking home, Yamini felt somehow like she was in a dream. Not a good dream, or even necessarily, a nightmare, just one of those dreams where you float around and everything seems sort of surreal. She put it down to the baking heat, and felt her forehead to see if she was getting a fever. That gesture once again reminded her of her mother, oh, how surprised they’d all be when she got home, maybe she’d be put to bed, with the AC roaring and someone to check in on her, feed her mangoes from a plate. She didn’t feel warm though, despite the sun, she felt cool, as though she had been indoors all day.

Most ghosts are pretty angry that there is no heaven. There is no hell either, but no one really thinks they’re going to hell. Instead they are locked to earth, as much as they were when they were alive and there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Yamini finally reached the large bungalow where her family lived. She had described it to a school friend earlier that term as, “the biggest house in the town.” This was not technically true. Yamini’s house was not the biggest, but it had the largest spread. Most houses were built vertically, four or five stories, in a concession to modernity, but hers sprawled around a courtyard with a well, and each of the four walls surrounding the courtyard had rooms that served different purposes. Yamini’s family lived in the side that faced west and she could watch the sunset every evening from her room. When she had been younger, she asked her mother why sunsets had to happen. “I want the day to go on and on,” she had said, her face mutinous.  Her mother had laughed, a little sadly, and said, “The sun has to go spend time with other people now, baby.” Later, her father had pulled out his old globe and demonstrated to her how the earth moved and how the sun shifted locations, but she had liked her mother’s explanation better. Maybe they had gone to spend time with other people too. Maybe they had forgotten all about her.

The old gate creaked as she pushed through it and with one last burst of energy she ran inside the house. “Ma? Papa? I’m home!” she yelled as she ran from room to room. “Chutki?” she called for her little sister, “It’s me, Yamini!”  The house was empty, abandoned, but it didn’t feel abandoned. It felt as though they had just stepped out for a moment and would be back soon.  The cows mooed from the cow shed at her voice and she ran there to look for her father, her uncle, anyone. But there was no one there. The house waited quietly. In a burst of tears, Yamini ran into her room and wept.

Trouble maker ghosts are the origins of all ghost stories. Your grandmother wouldn’t come back to haunt you. Sure, she watches you every now and then, but then like a soap opera you’ve given up on, you lose track of characters and then you just stop caring.

Yamini had fallen asleep crying and when she woke up, the sun had already set and she heard some faint murmurs from the rest of the house.  Thinking it was her family back again, she got up, a little groggily and made her way outside. The house was dark, no lights on, but she could feel the closeness of people. She tried to switch on a light, but it didn’t work. Yamini was a brave girl, used to frequent power cuts and not afraid of very much, having grown up with very sensible parents who reasoned her out of any imaginary frights, and many boy cousins who had tried pranks on her and failed.  No electricity? Just light a candle, which she did, and began to move to the northward set of rooms. That was where the kitchen was and the dining room, and where the family gathered at the end of the day.  The murmurs grew as she approached the dining room, but when she threw open the door, once more it was empty.

Or was it?

In front of Yamini’s eyes, she watched her shadow leap in the candlelight and then she saw four or five other shadows joining it. There were people in this room. The wind murmured low in the trees outside, but perhaps it wasn’t the wind. It was whispering noises, noises that made no sense when you confronted them, but if you closed your eyes, noises that were conversations. She gripped tightly onto her candle holder, watching as the shadows moved independently. One of the shadows noticed her,  and before she could make a sound, grabbed on to her shadow and dragged it into the courtyard. And this time, Yamini was the shadow. She was forced to go along with her dark image, dragged as if they were sewn together at the feet, her hands shook and she dropped the candle, and she looked down and felt her body grow weirdly. It was as if she was looking into one of those “fun” mirrors, she morphed into a creature with long flapping arms, her shoulder and torso grew very tall and her legs fused together so she couldn’t walk.

But she didn’t need to walk anymore, she was being pulled by her shadow into the courtyard and there around the well, she finally saw people. Dev, a second cousin who had drowned in this very well, Ayah, who had nursed her and her mother, who died when Yamini was about ten, Dada, her grandfather she had never met, but whose picture hung in the kitchen. For the first time in her life, Yamini felt a little flicker of fear. These were.. go on, say it…but it was impossible…not impossible if you can see them..these were…dead people.

The dead people around the well, turned to her and smiled, and Ayah, who was the one who had grabbed Yamini’s shadow, let it go. Yamini watched as it bounced towards her and then gasped as it bounced into her. Her legs separated, then fused, then separated again. Her stomach clenched and she thought she was going to vomit, and then her body shrunk massively and she was thrown to the ground. When she stood up a little dazed, she looked down and noticed she could see the grass and the stones and the moonlight shine through her body. She was flat, uni-dimensional. She was, in short, her shadow.

“Why are you here?” she squeaked, “Where is my family? What has happened to me?”

“Dear Yamini,” said Dada, his own shadow self flickering by the well, “Your family is well. They’re inside.”

“No, they’re not!” she screamed, “They’re not, they’re not, they’re not! What have you done with them?”

“Yamini, beta,” Ayah stepped towards her, “You’re a shadow person now.”

“But I don’t want to be a shadow person! Let me go!”

“Go then,” said Dev, smiling, “Go run inside and find your mummy-daddy and they’ll tell you this is all a dream. Go on!”

“Dev!” said Dada, sternly.

“What? If she wants to go, send her. I have other things to do then sit around and listen to her scream.”

“Dev, it’s not easy for anyone,” said Ayah.

“Well,” said Dev, still looking annoyed, “I’ve been a Shadow Person longer than you have, and frankly, I’m a little bored at having to go over the explanations over and over again.”

Yamini didn’t stop to hear anymore. She raced through her house, going, “Ma! Mumma! Please come out!” until she had been everywhere and they were nowhere and once more she was facing the three ghosts.

Not ghosts,” said Dada, “Shadow people.”

Yamini went over to a bench and sat down. If ghost was the same as a shadow person, if they had called her a shadow person, it meant that.. “Am I a ghost?” she asked.

“Shadow person!” said Dev, looking crosser.

“Ayah?” said Yamini, her lower lip beginning to quiver.

“Darling girl,” said Ayah, her wonderful comforting face making Yamini feel much better, “We are all shadow people. Even your parents.”

Wild hope leaped up in Yamini. “Can I see them?” she asked.

Dev laughed and Dada made his form stretch till in reached the top floor. “Dev! One more word out of you, and I will have you banished from the grounds for fifty years.”

“Not like I want to stay anyway,” muttered Dev, but he shut up.

“There are two kinds of shadow people,” said Dada, “The ones who breathe and the ones who don’t. We can only see each other. The breathers can only see each other also. Once in a great while, a non breather and breather will be able to meet, but these instances are rare.”

“But I breathe,” said Yamini.

Ayah’s eyes were kind as they rested on her face. “Try,” she said.

Yamini realized she had been holding her breath this entire time, and oddly, she didn’t feel the funny bursting feeling she normally did. She exhaled and inhaled and then began to cough. She only regained herself once she took in a mouthful of air and held her breath. It felt, weirdly, natural.

“What does this mean?” she asked and then she knew.

“Am I dead?”

Finally!” said Dev, “I thought you were going to take forever, and we aren’t allowed to tell you, you have to figure it out for yourself. Yes, you’re dead, you died on your way to catch a train back home. Run over by a bus.” He made a flattening motion with his hand. “Shmush. Dead. Like roadkill.”

Dada’s eyes flashed and Dev shrunk, suddenly half his size. “She had to know!” he squeaked.

Yamini thought back. Funnily, she couldn’t remember getting on the train, or even the journey. She had assumed she had slept the whole way, but she would have surely had some memory of it.

“There is no heaven,” Ayah began and the other two joined in, speaking low, like they were chanting:

There is no heaven, there is no hell.
 The world is what it is.
Breathers hear us, we hear  breathers, but we can never meet.
Shadows live, under breather’s feet, until the breather is no more.
Shadows wait, dancing in the light, to take you where they were.
Then shadow and breather combine, and we are one.
We are Shadow People.

The hair on Yamini’s arms stood straight up. The courtyard was flooded with light and shadows. The whispers came back. We are Shadow People, said the trees and the wind. We are Shadow People, murmured the other figures, suddenly everywhere. I am dead, thought Yamini and her body began to glow in the moonlight, I am dead and I am a shadow person.

(All rights reserved. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan)


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